Image via WikipediaWe were assembled at Madeleine's hospitable table, friends and family, French and British, for Sunday lunch and the aperitifs had been going the rounds...Suze, pineau, whisky and white port...while the clock ticked towards one o'clock. I had been asking about something that had been puzzling me...I was permitted use of the woods of the chateau up the road, and often used to walk there. A week back, I had seen something new - a very weathered stone cross erected in the main clearing. I hadn't seen the chateau owner to ask what it was about, and then a couple of days later, it had fallen down. Artisan francais again, I had thought. I was going to ask if anyone round the table had any idea what it was all about when the dog pricked up his ears as he heard his master's running feet on the pavement outside, and then barked as his master hurled himself through the portals in order to be at the table on time. Master had been winning at cards, but knew where his duty lay...lunch was serious business.
Someone commented on how good the dog was, especially as he could have been hoping to receive his master's portion if the one o'clock curfew had been breached and then a British friend said that his dog had rendered him good service during the week and proceeded to tell us his tale.
He was renovating a beautiful 'maison de maitre', a large, once elegant house which had been regarded as the best house in the commune, but which had fallen on hard times before he took it in hand. His companion was a little black dog who he had found on the road on Christmas Day who followed him everywhere around the house and garden. In the early hours of the morning, the little fellow had woken him, barking frantically, standing up on the bed defending his master. He heard sounds of heavy footsteps outside his bedroom door and got up to see what was going on,accompanied by the dog. Once out on the landing, he could still hear the footsteps, but this time up in the attic. Once there, they sounded from below again, and then from the ground floor as he ran up and down the stairs trying to pin point where they were coming from. Then the noise seemed to be coming from everywhere at once, whirling around him as he stood on the stairs before it suddenly stopped. The dog trotted back to bed and he was following when another noise started up. The door was open and he could see that there was nothing there, but the house was full of the noise of buckets of water being thrown against the walls of the bathroom, smashing and sluicing for what seemed a long time before it too, stopped and there was silence. He went to bed, reassured by the dog's lack of interest in proceedings, nothing further happened, and that was the end of the story.
Or it would have been, except that the next day he was talking to the old chap up the road, Gaston, a man who was cordially detested by all his neighbours as he could and would defend his rights with the force of law, custom or a shotgun as he felt the occasion demanded. However, as a new arrival and a foreigner, our friend was accepted by Gaston, who was always ready to help out with advice and assistance. He recounted his tale, expecting derision, but Gaston just took him into the house for a drink and began to explain the history of the house he had bought.
It had belonged to one of the families of local bigwigs in the inter war period, and the man in possession just before the 1939 - 1945 war had been a big spender. He bought himself an aeroplane which he would land on the lawns in front of the house from the proceeds of a thriving wine business, had a lot of agricultural property and had married a woman with money. His uncle was maire of the commune, and he was regarded as a pillar of the community. What the community didn't know was that this pillar was a different chap once he was out of their sight in Paris on 'business' trips. Then it was wine, women and song and money no object.
As an aside, it strikes me life must have been pretty stultifying in rural France, for anyone with any money seemed to be off up to Paris as often as they could to get away from it all. A friend told me that her uncle had managed to lose the family chateau after too many visits to Paris during which, mysteriously, he had been offering Mistinguette - a music hall star - vast amounts of money 'to sit in his car'.
The war was a godsend to our big spender, who was beginning to get through his fortune. He supplied eau de vie in quantity to the German occupiers and, as all my informants agreed, the Germans might have requisitioned, but they also always paid. The money was rolling in, smart cars were being bought and life was good. He was in good odour with the occupiers. The fancy took him to make a drive from the main road to the house, the old fashioned courtyard entrance not being to his liking, and, I suppose, the 'plane having been grounded for the duration. In the depths of winter, he obtained forced labour and dynamite to blast the frozen ground and level the new approach. It had all disappeared by our friend's time, but he could still see the trace of it where the ground dried out faster than its' surroundings in the heat of summer.
He wasn't the only one making money. A crony who owned the brickworks was making a pile, his neighbour was also in on the eau de vie supplies and there was always the black market. As Gaston explained, a lot of farmers before the war were tenants, subject to crushing leases, but such were their profits from the black market that after the war they could afford to buy out their leases and become independent. Bigger fish could make even more money, while the poor devils of women whose husbands were POWs, or who had been young enough to have been taken up for forced labour in Germany, were trying to keep the farms going singlehandedly or were going under.
All was going swimmingly, until the Allies had the lack of tact not to be thrown back into the sea in the summer of 1944. There had always been a Resistance in France, not numerous, mostly independent groups or Communist trade unionists, but in existence, and they began to make their presence felt. Not comfortable for those with big contracts with the Germans...and not comfortable for de Gaulle, by now recognised as leader of the Free French. The last thing he wanted was to have France liberated by foreign armies with the assistance of a Communist underground! The right thinking were encouraged to form groups and received arms in order to make a political counterweight to the Communists' very real claims to have been the only organised Resistance in France during the dark years of the Vichy regime.
Well, the big spender was right thinking, and, with his cronies and followers, swiftly became a 'Resistant', as the Germans began to pull back out of the area. However, as Gaston explained, there was a problem. While the big spender could proclaim his house a Resistance centre, and could proclaim himself the local Resistance leader, his history was well known and he decided that he must shut the mouths of the dissidents.
In a farm on the other side of the commune lived a youngish man, classed too weak for the forced labour drafts, who had acted as a courrier for the Resistance unit based in the railway works in the next large town. As the Germans retreated, his role became acknowledged...drinks in the bar, etc...and the big spender decided that this was going to be his example. He had the man lured to the house and locked into the outhouses. Whether things got out of control, whether drink had a part to play, whether it was all premeditated, Gaston did not know, but the man was tortured, his ear cut off and sent to his home and he was murdered, his body being buried in the woods in the next commune.
Well, the big spender survived untouched....but he never prospered. His cronies did, going on to bigger and better things in postwar France, but he could not change his ways and a lot of people were reluctant to deal with him given the rumours circulating. His business went downhill, he sold off his property, he sold his wife's property, and ended up in a small house down the road from the scenes of his glory, known to the commune as 'the man who ate three houses'. His wife was a recluse, his two sons were unemployable, except by the maire, daughter of a crony, who gave one a job as a roadsweeper, but being, as Guy remarked, 'allergic to dust', even influence could not keep him the job.
Retribution, then, down over the years?
That was the end of our friend's story, but Madeleine's cousin took over. A quiet man, who collected moths for the national scientific body, he had been a Resistant..as he said, a bit by accident. As a youth, he had been caught by the French police putting up rude posters about the Germans and had been handed over for a bit of rough treatment. So rough, in fact, that one ear was almost completely missing and he was partly deaf. Released, he was adopted by the group run by the doctors at the local hospital, and did his part. Not, that he always said, that that was much. He did what he could, usually passing messages. He never mentioned the risks he had run...as I say, a quiet man.
He and a group of old Resistants had been gathering together the accounts of everyone who had taken part in the movement locally, and he, as the archivist, knew something which linked the two stories.
Yes, the murdered man had been buried...in the chateau woods. In the clearing where I had seen the cross. In rural France, everything is seen, it is just not generally commented upon. The man's cousin had taken the man's dogs and they had found the body of their master which was dug up and given proper burial - complete with the ear.
In another account, details were suitably airbrushed. The group to which the young man had belonged were incensed.....to lose a colleague after the Germans had left, and then in such a fashion! They had ambushed the big spender's bailiff, the man who had lured the young man to his doom, taken him to the clearing and shot him. His family were told where to collect the body.
'Why didn't they shoot the big spender, or his cronies? Why go for the bailiff?'
The cousin explained that if the big spender had been shot, the repercussions would have been enormous...the gendarmerie would have been at full stretch to catch someone who attacked an important man...whereas, for the bailiff......
Oh, and as for my idea that the cross had been incompetently put up...nothing of the sort. He was well abreast of local gossip and the grapevine had been agog when, with a new owner at the chateau, the bailiff's family had wanted to put up a memorial and the owner had agreed. Local opinion disagreed. It was thrown down the next day and if it were to be put up again, the same fate would await it.
The U.K. was never occupied by the Germans and it is presumptuous of anyone who did not live through an enemy occupation to say how people could or should have acted, but if there had been something like the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the war instead of the propaganda trumpeting how every Frenchman was in the Resistance, and vindictively shaving the heads of women denounced as 'fraternising' with the Germans, perhaps the anger nurtured for more than fifty years would have been dissipated earlier.